“Larry Thomas: HEAP,” Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

Deception and detection, the personal and universal, the systematic and chaotic, are just some of the dualities that flow throughout Larry Thomas’ installation of 280 mixed media artworks at the Nerman Museum’s Kansas Focus Gallery.

Thomas’ small, brightly colored, collaged paintings on wood at first sight appear upbeat, even playful.  Seen in totality, this is a buoyant exhibition.  But one by one and close up, a number of the primarily abstract pieces show provocative, sometimes disturbing evidence of the real world.

Peppering walls with multiple, same-shaped artworks is a Minimalist strategy, a methodical approach to artmaking originally intended to undermine the emotionality of Ab Ex and color field painting. Thomas subverts that tactic. He creates a grid-like wall installation, but each of his wood tiles is locked and loaded, either politically or aesthetically. Individual works have a persona all their own, and one imagines them jumping off the wall at night and engaging in some interesting skirmishes.

“I never throw anything away,” Thomas says, and he has shredded, then embedded, his own photographs, digital artworks and other personal memorabilia into many of the paintings.  Covert political references proliferate. Images of tanks, weaponry and soldiers pop out from under paint gobs in some works, while fingers, body parts and an orange head of hair from a certain politician peer throughout multiple pieces.

“Heap” is personal in that the imagery in the paintings is from the artist’s own files, and like many artists Thomas is not inclined to reveal all the riddles in his art. The exhibit is universal “because we’re all getting so many heaps of information these days, from real to fake news, that we’re smothering in it,” Thomas says. “There is deception and misdirection everywhere.”

But the impetus for the exhibition goes back further than the current socio-political climate.

In 1993, Thomas had a kidney transplant.  “I became interested in the subject of immune systems after that,” he says. “I began to realize that almost everything has an immune system, which operates in a deception/detection kind of way.

“Countries have armies, for example, which operate as an immune system for them. Camouflage, whether for soldiers or weaponry, is often used to thwart being seen. It’s like cuttlefish, creatures that can change their appearance and blend in without being seen.  I became particularly interested in “razzle-dazzle” camouflage, in which stripes were painted on ships to help them avoid radar detection.”

Various kinds of stripes serve as a leitmotif throughout “Heap.” “This particular strategy is no longer being practiced,” Thomas notes, but “I wanted to simplify things visually.”

Thomas grew up in Sedalia, Missouri. After receiving an MFA from the University of Iowa, he taught art for 40 years, the last 25 at Johnson County Community College where he developed their digital imaging department, and was chair before retiring last year.

“Heap” took on a life of its own as the installation developed, Thomas says. “I wanted to be instantaneous and fresh with this work, and at first I thought of each piece as a sketch.  Then I started putting them together.  After 60 or 70 I thought I’d be bored, but that didn’t happen. I just had so much fun creating each one.

“I work on eight at a time.  I designed the installation myself by making a 1-1/2” scale model of the gallery space.”

In this kind of art-making, how to decide what is too much or not enough?  “One of my inspirations is Romare Bearden,” Thomas say, referring to the African-American artist whose remarkable collages changed the way we now look at art that incorporates ephemera.

Thomas knows that art with mixed messages such as “Heap” can be dicey to pull off, but he manages that beautifully here.  “I always remember what another artist once told me,” he says. “When political art has no aesthetic it’s just propaganda.”

“Larry Thomas: HEAP” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kan., through Sept. 17. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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